To This You’ve Been Called

Text: 1 Peter 2:21-25

For about six years a wildly popular show ran on the BBC over in England, and it was also broadcast over here for American audiences on PBS. The show was called Downton Abbey. Even though it had the word “abbey,” in the title, it had nothing to do with nuns. It did have everything to do with Lord Richard Crawley, the earl of Grantham, his family, and the servants who work for them. The show spans a decade or so, beginning just before the first world war. It follows the family as they administrate and care for the county, as well as the servants who care for them.

On the show, the servants have their own lives apart from their work and the twenty-or-so of them generally get along well, and their work goes smoothly. They generally get along, except for two: a man named Thomas and a woman named Miss O’Brien. These two both dislike everyone, and they bond over their common disdain for others. That is, until Miss O’Brien’s nephew comes to work at the house. Thomas, at the time, had been working in a midlevel position for a decade and, when the next rung on the ladder opened, proceeded to vie for that position. However, Miss O’Brien had another idea. As a personal favor, she asked if Thomas would help her nephew – brand new to the business – get the same one position that he had been working a decade to get. He refused, she took offense, and the two them spend the rest of the series trying to get each other fired.

Was she justified in her actions? She felt she had been wronged and sought to get even. Thomas, for his part, felt he had been wronged and tried to get even with her; was he wrong? According to the world, no. According the Apostle of our Lord in the text: they were both wrong. It is not within our place to seek revenge or the right the wrongs that have been done to us. Instead, Christ left us His example, St. Peter said, that we might follow in His footsteps. He did not curse or revile in return for the wrongs done to Him, but instead bore all our sins in His body on the tree. By His wounds, He has healed us of ours. He has brought us wandering sheep back into the fold. In this life to which we’ve been called, there is no place for revenge, only patience and forgiveness.

I.

In our text today, St. Peter discusses a topic that is on or has crossed every human heart: revenge. We have all, at one point or another, desired to get back at those who’ve done us wrong. St. Peter’s original audience was the scattering of Christians throughout the area we’d call northern Turkey. A great thing about Christianity is that the Gospel has nothing to do with personal wealth; Jesus died for the sins of rich and poor, alike. That said, many of St. Peter’s hearers were household or civil servants. They worked low paying jobs and they did them well; yet they were treated poorly. They were commonly mistreated because being a Christian at the time was a scandalous thing. In a time where many “gods” were worshiped, family life was frowned upon, and where human sexuality knew no bounds, the Christians worshiped one God, they cared for their families, and Christian husbands and wives remained faithful to each other alone.

Their beliefs led to the Christians in St. Peter’s society being marginalized. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. However, some of the Christians had had enough of being mistreated. They were going to get back. They were going to take their revenge on those who had done them wrong. St. Peter starts addressing them just before our text. He said, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.”[1] Then, he said, that some of them were being treated harshly because, well, they deserved it. But, after that, he said to those who were genuinely being mistreated for the sake of their faith, “if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.”[2]

Rather than directing those who had been wronged – whether justly or not – to take revenge, St. Peter directed them to Christ. Now, we may not have received the same treatment as these early Christians (though that time may return) but the principle stands: we are not to seek vengeance on those who’ve done us wrong. But, oh, how we’ve wanted to. I would wager in this matter that we are all guilty. Who hasn’t decided at one point that you are tired of how that other person has treated you, and wondered how you’ll get back? Maybe you’ll have a fight on the playground. Maybe you’ll spread a lie about them. Maybe you’ll give them the cold shoulder. Maybe you’ll be just unkind enough toward them that they’ll know you’re angry – that’s popular in North Dakota. In all these ways, we have sinned. Our place is not to take revenge, or to hold grudges. Our place is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, Peter said.

II.

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”[3] St. Peter has in mind the prophecies of Isaiah, of the Suffering Servant who would bear all human griefs and sorrows, who would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, who – by His wounds – would heal us. These Gospel promises of God (which are in the Old Testament, even) are fulfilled in Christ.

While we were wandering like sheep, content to be lost in our own sinfulness, Christ took upon Himself our human flesh. He became our Good Shepherd. He was reviled, cursed, struck, spit upon, beat, whipped, flogged, killed. At no point did He return evil for evil. At no point did He hold a grudge. At no point did He seek revenge or to get back but, He continually entrusted Himself to the Just Judge – our Father in heaven above. He did and suffered all these things to bring us wandering sheep back into the fold. Though we were prone to wander in sin, including desiring to and, sometimes, indeed getting back at others, Jesus paid for our sins with His own body. He has brought us back into God’s fold by His own blood.

III.

St. Peter said, “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.”[4] These words are meant primarily, to comfort us when we suffer unjustly for the sake of Christ. Those times may return when faithful Christians are not just marginalized, but truly mistreated for no other reason than for our trust in Christ’s Word. Peter would also remind us of our Lord’s Word, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”[5]

But these words today also stand for us in this way – just as Christ did not seek vengeance on those who wronged Him, but bore it all while trusting in God, so also are we called. A student is not above his master, nor a servant his Lord. Neither is it within our place to do wrong to those who’ve wronged us. We have sinned in this way, yet, we are reminded by St. Peter, that even those sins were borne by Christ on the cross. Though we were prone to wander, and have wandered in sin, Christ has secured for us forgiveness by His cross.

This past Lent we went through the Lord’s Prayer again. We read these words, the meaning of the Fifth Petition,

We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.

May the Lord grant by His Holy Spirit that we remember these words, endure our suffering with patience, and do good to those who’ve done us wrong.


[1] 1 Peter 2:18-19, English Standard Version.

[2] 1 Pet. 2:20-21.

[3] 1 Pet. 2:22-24.

[4] 1 Pet. 2:20-21.

[5] Mt. 5:11-12.

O Dry Bones, Hear the Word of the Lord

Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk [of the Word.] Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder.” We heard these words just a few moments ago in the Introit for the Sunday after Easter. The antiphon originally comes from 1 Peter 2, where the Apostle encourages us to put away all malice and deceit, and to long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word – so that by it we may grow up into salvation. The body of the Introit itself comes from Psalm 81, where God speaks to His people. He reminds them that He brought them out of Egypt, and has yet better things in store, if they would only listen to Him.

Speaking of better things in store, the Lord spoke through Ezekiel in our text of the better things He had in store for the people of Israel. The Lord sent Ezekiel to prophesy to a people in exile. The people Ezekiel ministered to were carried off to Babylon before the final destruction of Jerusalem, which is recounted just a few chapters before our text today. The Lord gave Ezekiel a vision with vivid imagery – of old, dry bones coming back to life. This vision was directed to the people of Israel, who were saying that the Lord had cut them off and that their hope was lost. Using this vivid vision, the Lord spoke through Ezekiel that He would restore His people to life. And, He did so then as He does now, by keeping the promises of His Word.

I.

As you probably know, this passage from Ezekiel is perhaps one of the better-known portions of Scripture. This striking vision of a valley full of dead, dry bones being covered in flesh and coming back to life has been portrayed in various forms of media pretty much forever. This vision was given by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied roughly around the same time and a little after as Jeremiah, the difference with Ezekiel being that he prophesied in Babylon while Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s ministry was also kind of different in that the things that had been prophesied by other prophets were now coming to pass. As in, Jerusalem was starting to fall. This means that, unlike a lot of the other prophets, people listened to Ezekiel.

It was hard not to. True, much of Ezekiel’s prophesying was hard to ignore, but so were their surroundings. Ezekiel prophesied to a people carried off into a distant land, living among people different from them, with a different language and culture. The people of Israel in exile lived among a pluralistic society, meaning, the people there worshiped any number of gods – or none. They lived as strangers in a foreign land. They understood that these things had come to pass as the Lord’s discipline, but they despaired of the Lord’s promises. We heard, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.[1] The children of Israel in exile were represented by the dry bones, for they felt that they had indeed been cut off from the Lord’s promise and were now without hope in the land of Babylon.

Not so, said the Lord. He told Ezekiel, “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel…I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”[2] Though the people felt as if they were withering in a foreign land, cut off from the love of the Lord and without hope, they really weren’t. Instead, the Lord continued to be with them, and, He would bring them back to their own land. They would not wither away into dust and ash, but the Lord will raise them and bring them back. The Lord said He would do it, and He did. Seventy years later, He brought them back to Israel from Babylon. Ezra even tells us that some of those who went into exile lived to see the return.

II.

But what about us? Are we dead, dry bones? Is our hope clean cut off? If we’re being honest, sometimes it feels that way. We live in trying times. Our society is pulling further and further away from the truth of God’s Word. In various places, church attendance is shrinking, and congregations of all denominations are closing. Even in our own ND district, one of our sister congregations will be closing next month. Are we dry bones? Are we cut off? It might feel that way, but, no. We are not cut off, and we are not without hope. For, remember, Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. And He has been raised.

Our Lord rose from the dead on Easter morning. By His death, He atoned for our sin and, by His rising again, He secured for us eternal life. That first evening, though the doors were locked where they were, Jesus appeared in the midst of His disciples. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”[3] With these words, Jesus instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry. He called and equipped the Apostles to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments. He gave them, as representatives of His whole Church on earth, the authority to forgive and retain sins. When the Apostles spoke in Christ’s stead that sins were forgiven, they truly were.

This work of Christ through His ministers continues even down to our time. Our Lord Jesus Christ continues to call and equip ministers through His Church. Through them He proclaims His Word to us and by their hands, Christ gives us His own sacraments. When His called ministers speak in His stead that our sins are forgiven, they are truly forgiven – even before our Father in heaven. I’m not saying these things to magnify ministers or place them on a pedestal. Rather, we exalt the One who continues to send and work through them.

Sometimes, we do feel cut off or without hope. But we are not. We can say this, because Christ continues to work among us and all the world. He continues to send pastors, and by them He speaks to us His Word of promise. Through them Jesus gives us His body and blood and forgives our sins. Through their mouths, Jesus assures us that we are not without hope, and that our sins are truly forgiven. Not only does Christ work through His ministers, but He also works through us – His body. Through the Church, as a whole, and in our daily lives, the same Christ who forgives our sins and gives us His Word, speaks His Word of promise and hope to those in need.

III.

We would be remiss if we didn’t talk today about the hope we have in one particular promise of the Lord – the Resurrection of the Dead. The resurrection that Ezekiel saw was a vision, but it foreshadows and reminds us of the true resurrection to come. St. Paul said that, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”[4] In Baptism, we were united with Christ in His death. We were buried with Him so that, just as He was raised from the dead – we will be, too. This will happen on the Last Day. Christ will come on the clouds and He will raise our bodies. Then we who, by His grace, have believed in Him, will enter in both body and soul into the new creation. Death did not hold Him, and it cannot hold us, either.

The prophet Ezekiel was sent by the Lord to proclaim to a people in exile that they were not without hope. Though they felt cut off and dried up, the Lord was with them and would return them to their own land. Sometimes we feel that way; but we, as well, are not cut off. The Lord continues to send His preachers to speak His Word, administer His Sacraments, and proclaim His forgiveness. By these things, He continues to be and work among us, giving us hope of the life to come. Particularly in this Easter season, we are reminded of this hope – that though we die, yet in this flesh we shall see God with our own eyes. Alleluia, Christ is risen.


 

[1] Ezekiel 37:11, English Standard Version.

[2] Ezek. 37:12, 14.

[3] Jn. 20:22-23.

[4] Rom. 6:5.

Our Passover Lamb Has Been Sacrificed

Text: 1 Corinthians 5:6-8

Long ago, when our God was about to lead the children of Israel up out of slavery in Egypt, He gave them the Passover meal. God instructed them that, on the night before they would leave Egypt, they were to take a young unblemished male lamb and slaughter it. Then, they were to take the blood of that lamb and use it to mark the doorposts of their houses. When the Angel of Death came that night to strike down the firstborn of Egypt, He would see the blood marking the door and pass over those inside. In addition, the Israelites were throw out any leaven in their homes. For one whole week they were not to eat any leavened thing. This lead to the Passover also being called the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

St. Paul uses these things as an illustration in our text. The Passover pointed ahead to and is fulfilled in the suffering of Christ. Jesus Christ, true God and also true man, is the true Passover Lamb. Three days ago, He was sacrificed for all human sin. God the Father handed Him over into death – even, He who had no sin. With His dying breath, Jesus uttered, “It is finished.” The sacrifice for all the sins of the world had been made. Jesus died. Our Passover Lamb was sacrificed. And, now, He has been raised. Christ died, and now He is raised again to never die again. Death could not hold Him. Just as the Passover Lamb pointed ahead to Christ, so the casting out of leaven pointed ahead to our new life in Him. Since Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, and He has freed us from the guilt of our sin, St. Paul encourages us to cast out the old leaven of malice and wickedness so that we may celebrate the Feast in sincerity and truth.

I.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the first part of our text, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”[1] With this simple proverb, St. Paul admonished the congregation to cease from their sinful behavior, behavior which belonged to their former manner of life – the life that they seemingly had before they were in Christ. Through St. Paul, the Corinthians heard the good news of Jesus Christ. They heard and believed that Jesus Christ, true God begotten of the Father before all time, became true man. He became man to fulfill God’s Law, to bear our sins, and to suffer and die to redeem the whole world. By His death, Christ atoned for all human sin and has freed us all from the guilt we deserve to bear.

The Corinthians heard and believed this, yet they acted as if they had not heard. Or, at least, they used the freedom they received in Christ as liberty to continue in sin. St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians covers many such situations – eating food sacrificed to idols, lawsuits among believers, drunkenness at church gatherings, and improper sexual relationships. The Corinthians not only did these things, but they boasted in them. They held, that since they had been forgiven in Christ, their present manner of living held no bearing on their future destination. In practice, their new life in Christ was no different from their former way of living. “Your boasting is not good,” St. Paul said. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. A little sin spreads into the whole group.

Like the Corinthians, we also have heard the Good News that we are free in Christ. By Christ’s death, our sins have been forgiven. And yet, like the Corinthians, we have used the freedom from sin as a liberty to sin. When we have fallen into sin, we have excused ourselves. We have lived to seek our own pleasures and satisfy our own desires. We have applied the Ten Commandments heavy-handedly toward others while turning a blind eye to our own sin. We have denied that we are sinners and acted as if we had no sin. We have continued to live in sin and presumed upon God’s grace. And, all of this, while we’ve called ourselves Christians. Our boasting is not good. St. Paul continued by saying, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.”[2]

II.

St. Paul encouraged the Corinthians and us to cast out and be cleansed of the old leaven of sin because, by Christ’s death we have been truly made “unleavened.” St. Paul said, “Cleanse out the old leaven…as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”[3] As we said a few moments ago, at the Passover, the Israelites were to take an unblemished male lamb and sacrifice it. They would then take the blood to mark the doorposts of their homes, and death would spare those inside. Christ is the Passover lamb. He is the unblemished Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world. Though He had no sin, He was made to be sin for us. In Him, God was reconciling the world to Himself. Christ is the Passover lamb, and His blood now marks our doors; it marks us.

By His death, Jesus Christ made full atonement for the sin of the world. All of our sin, all of our guilt, all of our temptations, all of our lies, all of our self-centeredness – these things He paid for with His own precious blood. And by His blood, death has passed over us. By His death, our debt is paid and by His rising again, death passes us over. The old leaven of malice and evil has been purged from the houses of our hearts, and we have been made unleavened. That means that, in God’s eyes – by faith in Christ – we have been made to be without sin. By the sacrifice of the true Passover Lamb, we are cleansed from all guilt and blame. We are unleavened.

III.

Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”[4] As Christians in this world, we live with feet in two kingdoms. We have been brought into the kingdom of God through the washing of Holy Baptism and by the gift of faith; yet, we remain in the kingdom of the world. Before God we are righteous saints, freed from the guilt of our sins. Yet, as we remain this flesh, we are sinners. As we remain both saint and sinner, our lives are imperfect. Though we know and have heard the things we should do, we fail to do them. The Corinthians used their freedom in the Gospel as liberty to sin, and we have, too.

Let us celebrate the festival in sincerity and truth, St. Paul said, for our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Christ, the true Passover Lamb, suffered and died for the sins of the world. And, what is more, He has been raised. Christ, our God, lives and reigns forever. By faith in Him, we, too, will rise from the dead to live in eternity. And, that eternity has already begun. In the Holy Supper, we receive a glimpse of the heavenly feast, and the lives we live now are the same lives that will continue beyond the grave. Therefore, St. Paul said, let us celebrate by living in sincerity and truth. Let us not lie but speak the truth. Let us not seek primarily our own good, but the good of others. Let us forgive those who sin against us, and seek their forgiveness when we sin against them. Let all filthy speech and actions be cleansed from our lives, even as the guilt of our sins has been removed from us.

When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb that Sunday morning, they did not find what they expected. They were expecting to find the body of Jesus. Instead, they were met by an angel who told them, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here.”[5] Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sin, is now raised from the dead. Death could not keep Him, and neither will it hold those who are in Christ. Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed and we are free from sin and death. Let us therefore celebrate His feast in sincerity, love, and truth.


[1] 1 Corinthians 5:6, English Standard Version.

[2] 1 Cor. 5:7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 1 Cor. 5:8.

[5] Mk. 16:6

A New Heart and a New Spirit

**The audio for this sermon may be found here:https://www.spreaker.com/user/trinitystjohn/2016-05-08-exaudi-sermon**

Text: Ezekiel 36:22-28

Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations…I will sprinkle clean water on you…and I will give you a new heart.” Such were the words of the Lord God that Ezekiel preached beside the Chebar canal in southern Babylon to anyone who would listen. The nation of Israel was his audience, which, during his ministry, was carried off into exile in a number of waves and ultimately destroyed through the Fall of Jerusalem. The ones standing immediately before him were the ones carried off to Babylon early in the exile and they had just heard that Jerusalem had indeed fallen. The walls were torn down and the temple destroyed. What hope could be left?

It is good that our fathers in the faith placed this text here in the lectionary, the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost. We heard from Jesus in the Gospel how the world will react after His Ascension. Some will claim to be worshipping God by killing Jesus’ disciples. St. Peter likewise reminded us in our Epistle not to be surprised when faced with trial and tribulation. In the Collect of the Day we prayed to our ascended Lord Jesus that He would not leave us without consolation, but send us His Holy Spirit. That is what God tells Ezekiel to prophesy about in our Old Testament text. God promised that He would do something marvelous. Even to those poor, dejected exiles, and to us in our suffering, God promised that He was actively at work to vindicate His name and remove their plight. From our text we’ll learn about God’s work, including the work of His Son. Today we’ll especially celebrate His work in Holy Baptism, for it is in the washing of Holy Baptism that God gives us the new heart and Spirit that He promises in our text.

  1.   

Before we go any further, we should talk a little bit about what’s going on in our text. Long story, short: Israel is in exile in Babylon. Now for the longer story: When we study the Old Testament we usually divide it up into two categories, the Law and the Prophets. We can also divide the Prophets into two categories, the Major and Minor Prophets. The Major Prophets are called that because their writings are longer (try reading the 66 chapters of Isaiah), the Minor because they’re shorter. Ezekiel is one of the Major Prophets with Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Fall of Jerusalem happened in 587 B.C. Isaiah prophesied about 100 years earlier. Jeremiah and Ezekiel preached at the same time around, during, and (in Ezekiel’s case) after the Fall of Jerusalem – Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and Ezekiel in Babylon.

Ezekiel prophesied to a people displaced and removed from their homeland. God gave the land of Israel to His chosen nation as gift promised to Abraham, but now they have been driven out of it because of their sinfulness. For generations God spoke to His people through the prophets that Jerusalem would fall unless they repent of their sin and be forgiven. Remember when God sent Jonah to Nineveh with that same message? Nineveh was a pagan city, and they repented and believed. But Jerusalem, the city of God, rejected Him. Instead of living in faithfulness to God and love toward one another, the people were altogether corrupt, hating each other and being hated in return, cheating everyone they could, worshipping false gods, and putting themselves first in all things. Even when they did come to worship God, it was tainted by sin and false pretense. God said through the mouth of Isaiah, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

But, now, God says in our text, this is all going to stop. Israel’s uncleanness, its disregard for God and His Word led to the Fall of Jerusalem and the Exile – but even then it didn’t stop. The Fall was meant to lead to repentance, but instead, God’s name continued to be profaned. The nations surrounding Israel gloated at their demise rather than repent of their own sinfulness. And Israel, instead of being sorry for their sin, just continued to sin in Babylon. But now God has had enough. He is going to do something radical. He’s going to do something amazing to purify Israel from their iniquity and vindicate His name among the nations. What is He going to do? He’s going to send His Son. That’s what God is talking about in our text. Already His plan is in motion, just as He promised to Adam and Eve to send them a savior. This Savior would be the Son of God who would bear the weight of the world’s sin on the cross to redeem us from our guilt. And, not because we are particularly special or good or merit salvation, but as God says, “It is not for your sake…but for the sake of My Holy Name.”

In our text we get the joyous opportunity to touch on one of the distinctives of our Lutheran faith. We call them the Solas: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura. In our text we get a beautiful picture of God’s grace. Even in the mire of Israel’s iniquity, even in the despair of the exile – the just consequence of their sin – God promises to save. He promises to purify them from their sin and rescue them from death, not through any works of their own, but by His grace alone. God also promises in our text to save us and to cleanse us from our iniquity, and in fact He has through the washing of Holy Baptism.

  1.  

God says these beautiful words in our text, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove your heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you.” In the midst of their iniquity and sinfulness, their depravity and darkness, God promised to sprinkle His people with water, and this water will make them clean. That is what Baptism does. You might remember this question from the Small Catechism. “What Benefits Does Baptism Give? It works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.”

God promised to His people our text that He would sprinkle them with water and make them clean. In doing so He would remove their callous hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. And, this is what makes our text fitting for this Sunday, the Sunday after the Ascension. As He ascended into heaven, Jesus promised to put His Holy Spirit within His people. This happens in Holy Baptism when the Triune God puts to death the sinful nature within us and makes us new creations. In Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ’s death and burial, so that we too die to sin and rise to righteousness.

In our text from Ezekiel God promised to His people that He was going to vindicate His name. No longer would Israel’s sinfulness be in the spotlight. Instead, God is going to wash it away. He did this by sending His Son Jesus to die for the sin of the world, both for Israel in Ezekiel’s time and for us now. Then, in Holy Baptism, washes us clean. He rips out our hearts of stone and gives us beating hearts of flesh. In Baptism He gives us each His Holy Spirit. And what does the Holy Spirit do? Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “When the Helper comes…He will bear witness about me.” That is, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make us Christians through the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, and to keep us Christians through the same. And, having received a new heart of flesh and God’s Holy Spirit, we are led outside of ourselves.

In the washing of Holy Baptism, we are made new creations. We no longer live seeking to serve our own flesh and passions, but we live for those around us, serving those in need in response to the love we receive from Christ. That is what St. Peter exhorts us to do. This is how he said it, “Keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.”

This week we stand with the Holy Apostles. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has ascended into heaven to be with us always and everywhere. Two thousand years ago the Apostles waited for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and we likewise are expecting Christ’s return. In our texts this week we learn about how God operates. He spoke through Ezekiel that He was going to vindicate His name and remove the iniquity of His people. He did this by sending His Son to die for the forgiveness of our sins, which He gives to us by grace alone. Then, in Holy Baptism He gives us clean hearts of flesh and puts His Holy Spirit within us. May He ever continue to grant us His Holy Spirit that we be led to live in love toward Him and our neighbor.

The Victory that Overcomes the World

Text: 1 John 5:4-10

I’ve never been much of a winner in my life. Granted, I don’t have a very competitive personality. But when I do compete, I very seldomly win. I don’t think it’s because I’m particularly bad at the things I do. It’s just that, no matter how much I practice, there always seems to be someone better equipped or more skilled than me. Maybe you’ve felt this way. I think my most celebrated victories are in the virtual world of video games or the crowning achievement that is finishing Easter leftovers. But even in that, there’s always someone that can pack in more food than me, both in larger amounts and less time.

The title for the Sunday after Easter is Quasimodogeniti, and it comes from the Introit. It means, “As newborn infants.” Such were the words of St. Peter in his first epistle, “As newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” This text was placed here by our fathers in the faith long ago as part of the continued instruction of confirmation students. In the ancient Church confirmation was three years long, ending on the Vigil of Easter (Saturday evening). There the confirmation students would be baptized and receive the Lord’s Supper for first time. In the Introit for the next Sunday (today) the newly confirmed Christians are encouraged to continue learning God’s Word, which is the pure spiritual milk we all need.

Our text today is from St. John’s first epistle, especially verse 4, “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.” John writes this to the churches of Asia Minor after his return from exile to encourage them in the faith. In some ways they had become discouraged by the world around them that was so filled with evil and ungodliness. They had lost sight of Christ’s Easter victory, the resurrection from the dead. St. John encouraged his congregation and us that the resurrection is not just for Jesus, but for us as well. His resurrection becomes our own. Through faith in His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins, we also are victorious over the world and we have the confidence of eternal life.

St. John writes to his beloved flock in a post-Easter world about their new status in life: victorious. Through Christ’s death their sins were forgiven and by His resurrection life and immortality were restored to mankind. The Church celebrated this fact. The letters of St. John, we call them First, Second, and Third, were all likely written during the end of his long career as pastor in Ephesus. By this time the Christian Church had existed for more than fifty years, gathering every Sunday for the preaching and teaching of God’s Word and to receive the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins. The post-Easter Church was a vibrant and lively place, even amidst their surroundings.

St. John wrote in a post-Easter world. Post-Easter, in the sense the resurrection of Christ was a present reality for them. John was an eyewitness of the fact, as were some others who were still alive. But the Church existed even then in a world that was totally and completely opposed to the Christian faith. We believe that John spent most of his career in Ephesus, except for his exile during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Ephesus a short time after that was the third-largest city in the empire. There were about 250k in this seat of Roman power. In addition to being an imperial city, Ephesus was also a center of pagan worship. The principal god of Ephesus was Artemis. You can read in Acts 19 of the riot that happened while St. Paul was preaching there. Everyone yelled back and forth for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Around this time also emperor worship was gaining steam. It consisted of parades, festivals, and public worship. There was almost no aspect of life that was not affected by the false gods of Ephesus, and all of it was opposed to the Church. The Ephesians could have very easily felt like they weren’t winning.

It’s easy for us to feel the same way. We’re not immune or oblivious to the context we live in. The Christian faith is blasted in the media and on social media. We’re told that our faith is ignorant and harmful. In some areas adoption agencies will not place children in the care of parents who hold to certain core Christian beliefs. The only way that the Christian faith is allowed is when Christ is removed. This is the faith that is comfortably touted from political podiums, “Do unto other as you would have done unto you.” Though Jesus did say that, when left to stand apart from the context, it works against our Christian witness. “Do not be surprised, brothers, when the world hates you,” St. John says. He echoes the words of Christ, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”

Sometimes, though, it’s not the world that hates us and robs of the victory in Christ. It’s easy to turn off the TV, ignore the internet, change the dial. Our heart is also a problem. That is the devil’s target: your heart. He wages every war and battle he can to steal the hope we have in Christ from us. He’ll do this by tempting you to doubt God’s Word: to doubt it about Jesus, to doubt the faith of the Church, and especially, to doubt the forgiveness we have in Christ. The truth is that Christ died for every single sin. There is no sin that Christ did not die for. Murder, theft, adultery, homosexuality, alcoholism, abortion. These are all sins, but sins that Christ died to forgive. He offers that forgiveness freely by His grace through faith. The devil will try to tell you that there are sins that Jesus didn’t die for, and if He didn’t die for those sins, how can I be sure that He died for mine? Over against these things: the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, St. John writes, “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.”

Everyone who believes in Jesus has been born of God and everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. How? By faith. By faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins we receive victory over sin, death, and the devil. We have this confidence for a few reasons. First, Jesus. The text says, “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by water only but by the water and the blood.” That sentence is a little confusing. John is writing, in part, against those who had infiltrated the Church and were claiming that Jesus only appeared to be human. They taught that Jesus was a spirit being and didn’t actually die on the cross, and other variations on that.

No, St. John says, our confidence is based on the fact that Jesus came by both the water of His Baptism and the blood of the cross. At His Baptism the Spirit descended in the form of a dove and the Father spoke from heaven that Jesus is His Son. The Baptist proclaimed that Jesus is the Lamb of God come to bear the sins of the world, and that is what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus came by water, being baptized for the repentance of our sins, and then He paid for them as a ransom by the shedding of His blood on the cross. This the first reason for our confidence.

The second reason we can claim victory over death and the devil is the testimony of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was in the Upper Room with His Disciples on the night He was betrayed, He promised to send them the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth whom, Jesus said, would reveal to the Disciples all truth. What was the truth the Spirit revealed? Jesus! Jesus is the Son of God who died in accordance with the Scriptures for the sins of the world, and who broke the bars of death by bursting forth from the grave. The Spirit bore witness to the Disciples and through their Word. In the same way, He continues to bear witness even today. He works through the preaching of the Gospel to comfort our hearts. He works through Baptism to bring us the gift of faith and the forgiveness of sins. He works through the Lord’s Supper strengthening that faith and the hope we have in the resurrection.

The third reason that we can be confident of the victory we have in Christ is the testimony of God the Father Himself. We already mentioned the voice from heaven at Jesus’ Baptism. The same voice spoke again at the Transfiguration that Jesus is His Son. He is the one who would bear the sins of the world and win us forgiveness. St. John says, “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater.” Meaning, if we believe something because a man tells us, how much more should we believe something when God tells us. And what has God told us? He has given us eternal life, and that life is in Jesus.

St. John closes his first epistle with these words, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” In other words, St. John writes to assure us that we have the victory in Jesus Christ. It’s easy to be discouraged by the world that hates us, and by the devil who causes our hearts to doubt. But, in these things we are more than conquerors. Christ has been raised from the dead. Death no longer has dominion over Him or over us. In Christ we are more the conquerors, we are victorious and we will live forever with Him in the eternal glory of heaven.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Text: Matthew 17:1-8

The theology of the cross is one of the main things I love about Lutheranism. The theology of the cross says that the depth of God’s for us is not found primarily in the high points of life, such as wealth or comfort – things that are temporary. Instead, it is found in the humility, shame, and suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us this in John 14 when Philip asked Him to show them the Father. He responded that he who has Jesus has seen the Father. Jesus was teaching His disciples about His suffering and death for the forgiveness of sins. He who has seen the Son of Man dying on the cross for the sins of the world has seen the love that God has for us. Martin Luther once wrote, “True theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.”

The phrase, “theology of the cross,” comes from one of Luther’s writings. Luther found himself in hot water after posting the 95 Theses. He was branded a heretic; and, though not excommunicated yet, Pope Leo X moved to silence him early on. He sent word down the line until it reached Luther’s superior, Johann von Staupitz. But, instead of silencing of Luther, Staupitz invited him to speak, in order to convince others to align themselves with Luther’s cause. In the midst of this Luther wrote one his most famous passages: “He deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

What Luther means is this: the love, grace, and mercy of God are shown to us – above all other things – in the suffering and cross of Christ. That is what the Transfiguration of Jesus is all about. In His Transfiguration we receive a glimpse of Jesus‘ heavenly glory, a foretaste of what awaits us in the life to come. But this glory, which Christ will share with us, only comes through the suffering of the cross. At the Transfiguration, Jesus gives us a glimpse of His resurrected glory, which He shares with His Church, but it comes only as the fruit of His cross.

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The text from St. Matthew’s Gospel begins, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” St. Matthew writes that the Transfiguration happens six days after something. The context of this passage is that Jesus and the Disciples are traveling south from Caesarea Philippi, up toward Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was a Gentile area, but there St. Peter gave the great confession of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” From that moment on, Jesus began to show the Disciples what being the Messiah meant. Just before our text, Jesus explained for the first time that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise from dead. He is the gloriously majestic Son of God, but His glory is wrapped in the suffering and shame of the cross.

And just as Jesus’ life was full of suffering, so are the lives of His followers. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The life of a Christian is thus a hard one. After we are washed by the blood of Christ, we are led by the Holy Spirit to deny ourselves, to deny the sinful wants and desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. We carry the cross of Christ, which is foolishness to the world, upon our shoulders, around our necks, and in our hearts. We do this because, now that we have been crucified with Christ, we no longer live; Christ lives within us.

After teaching the Disciples this, Jesus took three up the mountain with Him and was transfigured before them. His face shined like the sun and His clothes were as bright as light itself. We see a picture of the glory that awaits the Church. We see the glory that Jesus had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before all time, which He will share with us – but only after His crucifixion. The Transfiguration confirms that what Jesus has been saying all along about His suffering and death, and about the Christian life of self-denial, is true. Moses and Elijah also bear witness to this. Moses represents both the Law and the Prophets, which speak about Jesus. Elijah’s presence likewise confirms the promises which God has made of old. Notice that neither Moses nor Elijah are dead. In fact, they’re very much alive. So shall we be in the resurrection, for God is not god of the dead, but the living.

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But then, St. Peter interrupts. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Perhaps as a representative of the group, Peter interrupts the scene – just like he did before when Jesus explained that He was going to be rejected, suffer, and die. It didn’t suit Peter’s sensibilities for Jesus to suffer, be rejected, die, and rise again – even if it were the forgiveness of sins – because that means he would have to suffer as well. Peter’s desire to remain on the mount of the Transfiguration is quite understandable, and in some ways is good, right, and salutary. Though, if they remained on the mountain as Peter desired, that would be a problem. Then Jesus wouldn’t be going to the cross as payment for our sins.

Peter proves St. Paul to be right when he says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” The idea that the suffering of Christ is where we see the love of God flies against every fiber of the Old Adam within us. The idea that, because we are united with Christ in Baptism, we will also suffer in this life and be hated by the world, all the while striving to deny our own sinful passions, is absurd to natural reason.

Like Peter we sometimes get glimpses of Jesus’ glory: the baptisms of our children and grandchildren, their confirmations, in the sacrament of the altar, in those times where we see prayers answered before our very eyes. But life, unfortunately, isn’t all glory; there are also the crosses we bear. We trudge through our daily lives. We struggle to teach our children the faith, knowing that the world will do everything it can to rip it from them and us. We are hated by the world for actually believing Christ and His Word. But, the suffering of Christ means that He is with us. Last week we talked about how Christ became united with us in Baptism. He is united with us and we with Him, as closely as a vine with its branches, even (and especially) in the suffering of this life. As St. Paul wrote, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

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While [Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” The words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ Baptism are echoed here at the Transfiguration. But, now they have something added to them. Jesus is God’s Son; we’re supposed to listen to Him. That’s an added emphasis for Peter, the Disciples, and us. We are to listen to Jesus – not the devil, not the world, and not our own sinful flesh. All of those want us to strive after the good life, the comfortable life. They want us to do anything other than look at the cross and remember our Baptism. Looking at the cross means remembering that in Baptism we are united with Jesus in His suffering and death. And quite frankly, that’s not always so fun. It means we are going to struggle in this life. We’re never going to be perfect. We’ll never be rid of our sin. We will never reach a point where we are not wrestling with our many temptations.

But, being united with Christ doesn’t just mean we are united with Him; He is united with us. It means that, in those times where you just can’t take another day, where life is killing you, where your heart just says, “No more,” Jesus is there. He is with you. He bore your sins on the cross; He suffered for you, to win for you the forgiveness of sins. Through the Word and Sacraments, He continually makes good on His promise to be with you always. Then, when this life is finally over, glory begins. Jesus was Transfigured to assure us of the truth and as a preview of the glory to come. This glory, though, only comes through suffering. That’s how it was for Jesus – He stepped down from His eternal throne, to suffer, die and rise for you – and that’s how it will be for us.

St. Peter wrote in our Epistle text, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” In the Transfiguration we receive a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected glory, glory that He will share with us in the resurrection, but it comes only after the cross. Peter teaches us to pay attention to it as to a light shining in a dark place. We are theologians of the cross. We know that without the cross, there can be no glory. Without the cross, there can be no forgiveness. But, in the cross of Christ we do glory and to us it a shining beacon in this dark world. It shows us that nothing in heaven or earth, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This love will be with us always, all suffering life long, until we are raised anew to live in the glory of Christ at His coming.

 

Because He First Loved Us

Text: 1 John 4:7-21

This week was St. John’s vacation Bible School. The title was Camp Discovery: Jesus at Work through Us. Each day the children learned about the work of Christ through His Word and Sacraments. They learned that Jesus gives them courage and wisdom, that He saves them through faith and then leads them to share His love by serving others. The theme verse for the week and our text today is from 1 John 4, “We love because he first loved us.”[1]

This text was the Epistle reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, but it is profitable for us for it to come up again today. In 1 John 4, the apostle exhorts his beloved fellow Christians to test the spirits, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. Those that confess that Jesus has come in the flesh are from God, and those that don’t are not of God. They may rage against us, but St. John assures us, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”[2] Therefore, since those who have faith in Jesus overcome the world, the apostle then exhorts us as to what sort of people we have been called to be.

I.

St. John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”[3] Before we can begin talking about anything, we must start with the source of our life: our Triune God. Last week on Trinity Sunday we took a few minutes to confess our faith in the One God in Three Persons. We believe from Scripture that God exists eternally as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Today we learn what is the epitome, the essence of God Himself: love.

John writes that love is from God because God is love. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always appear that way. That’s not because God isn’t always love, but because our sinful nature drives us to see things differently. Instead of seeing the love of God in Christ Jesus, many people only see the God of the Bible as one of hate and Law. This is due largely to the sinful condition we are all in that reacts scornfully against any attempts to curb its evil desires. But often it’s also because we as Christians abuse God’s Law. Instead of learning from Christ that He is the fulfillment of the Law and that the whole goal of the Law is love, we remake the Law in our own image. We turn the Law from a mirror that shows us all our sins and need for salvation, we take it and turn it into a set of rules that one must follow to be a good member of the church. The Law becomes a maze for human rats to follow to get cheese at the end. Thus, we fail to live in love.

Thankfully, our failure to live in love does not undo the fact that God is love. Scripture says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”[4] But wait a second, I haven’t said anything about not loving God, right? But that’s exactly the point: our failure to live in love towards our neighbor is a failure to love God. Ever since the Fall our natural inclination is to love ourselves more than God and our neighbor. None of us by nature possesses the ability to truly love as love itself was created.

Our failure to love is what prompted God to send His only begotten Son. In this is love, not that we loved first, but that He first loved us and sent Christ to bear the guilt of our sin. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God bore our sins, our constant failure to love, in His body on the cross. He suffered the ultimate punishment for us. He died for you. God is love, even the perfect model of sacrificial love.

II.

St. John writes, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”[5] What he means is that, if God has loved us so much as to look past the guilt of our constant sinning by sending His only Son to die for us, thus we also ought to love one another. The Bible says that as we abide in Christ and His Word, He abides in us and His love is perfected in us. The children learned this week in VBS that the main goal of the love of Christ that dwells within us is that we serve others and share the saving work of Jesus Christ with those in need.

If you’ve ever gone to a wedding, you’ve probably heard the familiar words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Maybe you had them at your own wedding. Paul writes of perfect love saying, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[6] This is a long description of the life to which all Christians have been called. But, if we’re honest, it doesn’t sound much like us. We might be able to check off a couple of the boxes here and there, but never are we able to live perfectly in the love that Christ has shown us and has called us to. At the bottom, all our problems are the result of our sinful failure to live in Christian love.

The theme verse for VBS this year is 1 John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.” There’s two parts to that sentence: our love, and Christ’s love. We already know that more often than not, our love is poor or non-existent. We fail to serve others, we gossip and slander; we’re inactive and apathetic; instead of building others up, we puff ourselves up. But Jesus is none of those things. He is God, He is perfect love. He is patient and kind, bearing with us when we fail to love. He does not envy or boast. He is not arrogant or rude; He does not shame us when we sin. He is not irritable or resentful, but always willing to freely forgive.

Therefore, we love. We love because He first loved us. Christ knew our weaknesses and the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness. He knew that we, all too often, fail to love. And so, He loved us. He loved us even to the point of death, death on the cross. There He won for us the free forgiveness of all our sins. Now He freely gives us that forgiveness through the preaching of His Word, through the renewal of the Holy Baptism, and in the supper of His own Body and Blood. By these things we are strengthened for lives of service in love towards Him and one another. We love because He first loved us.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 1 Jn. 4:19.

[2] 1 Jn 4:4.

[3] 1 Jn 4:7–10.

[4] 1 Jn 4:10.

[5] 1 Jn. 4:11.

[6] 1 Cor. 13:4–7.